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Tech Employee Job Satisfaction: What Can Data Tell Us?

Key Takeaways

  • Salary and benefits analysts PayScale researched job satisfaction levels at major tech companies
  • Tech workers appear to be comparatively young and well paid at early/mid-career stages
  • Researchers reported a marked drop in satisfaction levels among older, longer-serving staff
  • The data potentially backs the repeated legal claims of age bias in tech industries
  • Business guru Daniel Pink’s work may suggest millennials are just better suited to tech roles

There’s a familiar tech industry parody that we all love to hate, whether or not we already work in the field: it’s a broad-stroke picture of beanbag-strewn breakout zones, bean-to-cup espresso machines on every hot desk, colour-coordinated bicycles ambling through a leafy campus, and unfettered access to betaware versions of next year’s zaniest must-have gadgets.

Of course, those are all potential benefits that can (and let’s face it, often do) form parts of the overall tech employee experience. But it’s equally true that the cartoonish stereotype of granola-strewn anti-corporate utopias are ... well, let’s just say that any working environment has its downsides if you look for them.

Still, the fact remains that millennials are flocking towards these sorts of jobs at an unprecedented rate. In seeking a more objective overview to understand why, we probably need to look at some slightly drier figures. What can the hard stats really tell us about how satisfied major tech firm employees feel in their jobs, and for how long?

Crunching the numbers

One recent attempt to answer those questions was made PayScale, an online company that undertakes salary and benefits analyses across a broad range of industries. Using their own compensation database, they combed the figures to asses levels of overall job satisfaction for different employee demographics across 17 of today’s leading tech corporations. Businesses such as Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, IBM, Tesla and Amazon were all targeted in the study, and in each case, PayScale used current employee feedback to chart staff perceptions of overall job satisfaction against a number of key metrics.

Data logged included variables like average employee age, total years of industry experience, length of service with the current employer, and early/mid-career median salaries. As a representative sample, the results were noteworthy in several regards – and, when compiled into a series of infographics, they do seem to highlight a couple of fairly apparent trends. (The extent to which those trends are at all revelatory depends very much on how we interpret the data, as we’ll see.)

For starters, it comes as no great shock to notice a direct correlation between overall job satisfaction and median pay levels at both early and mid-career stages. Across the board, staff tended to report greater levels of job satisfaction at companies whose average pay was higher at both entry and middle-tier levels; precisely what you’d expect to see in any given industry. Indeed, as ‘businessthink guru’ Daniel Pink underlined in his seminal work Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, "the best use of money as a motivator is to pay people enough to take the issue of money off the people enough so that they’re not thinking about money and they’re thinking about the work."

Moreover, and especially relevant to this study, that’s not simply down to primarily mercenary motivations: we’re all inherently better placed to feel fully engaged, and thus more satisfied, with our 9-5 life if we’re financially comfortable outside of it. Tech companies have, on the whole, developed a reputation for hitting that sweet spot fairly accurately – but it seems some are more on target than others.

Of course, what Pink was really saying in Drive was that money isn’t the be-all and end-all when it comes to job satisfaction, and that too much of it can affect motivation just as quickly as too little. The sweet spot, from an employer’s perspective, is paying just enough that money ceases to be a 24/7 issue for the employee, freeing them up to dedicate more of themselves to the job.

The main point here is that, regardless of whether they’re working for a company that takes a more buttoned-down sober approach, or the sort that fills corporate HQ with giant indoor slides and puts table tennis in the meeting room, tech staff are far more likely to feel invested in their work if they’re compensated reasonably well for showing up.

Predictable enough so far, but worth noting for the record all the same.

The age of satisfaction?

More interestingly, the charts also appear to show a reasonably clear inverse relationship between median employee age and levels of job satisfaction; in other words, the older an average workforce is, the less they seem to relish working for their current employer. Of the companies studied, only three (namely Hewlett Packard, Oracle and IBM) reported a median staff age of over 35 – the same three whose employees logged the lowest scores for overall job satisfaction.

Of course, this can be interpreted in a multitude of ways to suit different ends. Are older employees inherently less optimistic or more jaded? Are a greater proportion of certain companies’ employees brand new entrants to the world of full-time employment, and therefore lacking any frame of reference? Could median age stats for some employee pools be significantly distorted by a couple of extremely long-serving and senior individuals?

Then again, maybe some company models rely on hundreds of entry-level positions that simply don’t exist within competitor structures, and which are predominantly filled by recent graduates. Or perhaps it’s simply that some of the least ‘satisfying’ roles are among the most critical to the long-term success of the company, and younger recruits aren’t yet equipped to handle them as deftly as their more senior colleagues.

Equally plausible, though, is the implicit suggestion that the tech industry’s much-publicised tendency towards more youthful workforces is damaging not only to those over 40 seeking employment in Silicon Valley, but also to those who already work there.

There's certainly a tempting precedent for that idea. A Bloomberg report from 2016 noted that the 150 largest Silicon Valley firms had collectively been sued a staggering 226 times on grounds of age bias since 2008. One year prior to that, in 2007, a then-22-year-old Mark Zuckerberg openly implored audiences at a Stanford startup event to prioritise employing young tech people, arguing that 'Young people are just smarter...why are most chess masters under 30? [Young people] have simpler lives. We may not own a car. We may not have family. Simplicity in life allows you to focus on what’s important.'

(The obvious rejoinder is that it literally means you know about less stuff – not to mention the value of emotional intelligence – but those are arguments for elsewhere.)

It’s important to note that employee age and length of tenure at a company are two very different variables. It's an especially important distinction to make in the fast-moving tech industry, where talent frequently hops over various brand fences multiple times in a career. And yet, according to PayScale’s study, both age and tenure seem to share a similar downward trajectory with regards to job satisfaction: just as older workers claim to be generally less happy in their jobs, so too do those who’ve been with their respective employers the longest.

Clearly there will be some significant crossover here; after all, logic dictates that older employees have a higher chance of also being the ones with the longest tenures. And, since the cluster of brand logos hug the downward-sloping line less tightly in the ‘job satisfaction vs. years with company’ chart, we can infer that the correlation isn’t quite as rigid. But why should length of service have any relation to dwindling job satisfaction at all? If anything, shouldn’t longer tenures indicate the precise opposite?

Again, one could make a great many claims as to what this data shows (and very few as to what it proves). Perhaps the industry’s apparent age bias and high staff turnover rates have an isolating effect on the smaller pool of employees who stick around in one place for longer. Maybe it’s linked to other diversity issues the industry has traditionally struggled with, such as gender bias – is a team of exclusively young male co-workers inherently unsatisfying for those who’ve achieved mid-career stability and now seek better work-life balance with broader opportunities to socialise?

Alternatively, is it that there’s a relatively low ceiling in an industry dominated by fast-growing startups, in which early progress can be rapid for employees but soon stagnates unless they leave to form their own?

Millennial mastery

Ultimately, a key problem when examining studies like PayScale's is the potential variation in what individual respondents mean by 'satisfaction'. Without a sharper definition of what exactly constitutes that elusive quality, it’s hard to draw concrete conclusions from any of these datasets on their own; only when viewed holistically do they even begin to provide any basis for speculation. Thankfully, in trying to arrive at an all-purpose working definition of job satisfaction that might offer a better foothold on these charts, Daniel Pink again puts forward some useful suggestions.

In the aforementioned Drive, Pink cites the three core factors in the equation as being ‘autonomy, mastery and purpose’. According to him, a sense of autonomy trumps compliance in terms of how much satisfaction we derive from completing of a task. Meanwhile, he argues, achieving mastery of it, and also discerning a genuine purpose behind it, are both key in helping us to stay motivated and engaged. That makes sense: we quickly lose interest if we find something either too easy or too hard, or if we lack passion for the outcome.

Tellingly, these factors come into play especially strongly for millennials – the very ones queuing to fill all those tech industry jobs.

More than ever before, young people now expect employment contracts to allow for greater autonomy, particularly in terms of when, where and how they work: after all, they've been raised with the ability to do almost anything they need to online, regardless of time or location. Naturally they also want to be good at what they do, as does everyone. But today's environment of perma-connectivity, free-flowing schedules and subsequent time poverty mean that many people’s work and social lives blend almost seamlessly together, in a way that was unthinkable even 15 years ago; for millennials, that idea of ‘mastery’ is about much more than just pride in a task done well.

And ultimately, if you’re not invested in the purpose of whatever’s central to that highly blended lifestyle, it can all grind to a halt rather quickly.

In terms of assembling an overall picture of tech industry job satisfaction, we can probably say that tech company employees by and large do tend to be relatively young, relatively well paid and relatively satisfied in their job roles. Given that many of these companies reliably turn up on global ‘Best Employer' lists year after year, this isn’t really much of a revelation.

Still, the likelihood of things staying that way in the long-run appears to be far more open to debate. Regardless of what the currently hectic startup marketplace might suggest, not all new recruits finishing their first year as a lowly Google coder will be leaving to launch their own indie developer by 2020. For those who do choose to remain on their company’s books going forward, the statistics available five or ten years from now should make for interesting reading indeed.

About the Author

Ashley Fleming is a writer and designer whose work often covers business and business ethics. He lives in the UK with his family and cats and more of his work can be found on the ecardshack and eco2greetings blogs.

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